MMA Review: #672: UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez

-This was the UFC’s first show on the proper ESPN network and they brought a hell of a main event – the return of former Heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez after nearly 3 years out to take on the most powerful puncher in the division, Francis Ngannou. Rest of the card wasn’t so good but with that main event, nobody really cared!

UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez

Phoenix, Arizona

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Dominick Cruz.

Featherweight Fight: Myles Jury vs Andre Fili

Both of these men were in pretty dire need of a win, as both had seen short winning streaks snapped in their previous fight and in a loaded division constantly in flux, a good showing was probably needed for them to continue their UFC runs. I was taking Jury as he felt a little more consistent than Fili but it was a close one to call.

Fight begins and Fili walks down Jury to begin, landing some jabs with Jury stuck at range. Big overhand right connects for Fili. Jury looks totally flat-footed right now and he continues to take jabs. His nose is pretty badly busted up already. More jabs and a couple of low kicks land for Fili and Jury just can’t seem to get out of first gear at all. Fili continues to pick at him with the jab and adds a right hand a couple of times for good measure, but Jury stuns him with a left with seconds to go. Fili recovers quickly and throws a glancing head kick, then gets back to jabbing. Round ends there and Jury looks really rough. 10-9 Fili.

Into the 2nd and both men exchange jabs and low kicks now, with Jury pushing the pace much more than he was in the first round. Hard right hand lands for Fili. He keeps on landing the jab and even though Jury’s throwing more in this round Fili’s clearly landing the better strikes. Right hand answers back for Jury though. These guys are really swinging now. Fili’s looking busted up too. They’re basically going jab-for-jab here. Beautiful spinning backfist suddenly drops Fili and now he’s in trouble! Jury pounces on him and drops some big shots and then passes into full mount, but Fili defends well and eventually gets back to guard. Round ends there, and it’s got to be 10-9 Jury for that knockdown.

Third round and this could go either way now. They exchange right away using primarily – you guessed it – the jab, and it’s Fili seemingly more active in the early going. Nice right hand comes over the top for Fili too but Jury takes it well. Jury’s face is a total mess now. He’s in danger of letting this fight slip away. Right hand connects for him but Fili seems fine and gets right back to the jab. 1:30 to go and this looks like Fili’s fight to lose now. More of the same follows and Jury just isn’t throwing enough. Big attack from Jury with seconds to go and he does tag Fili, but it’s not enough. 10-9 Fili for a 29-28 overall.

Judges have it 29-28 all round for Andre Fili. Well, even the worst judges surely couldn’t have gotten that one wrong. Really good performance from Fili although it never felt like Jury was truly out of the fight; he just didn’t really throw enough outside of the second round. Fight was more technical than fun as they didn’t go wild or anything at any point, but it was still enjoyable enough.

Welterweight Fight: Vicente Luque vs Bryan Barberena

This one sounded like a definite brawl, as Luque was coming in with a ludicrous finish rate – winning 7 of 9 UFC fights with none going the distance – and Barberena had built a reputation as one of the toughest guys on the whole roster despite not being quite as flashy. I was picking Luque due to his superior athleticism but it was another close call.

Round One begins and Barberena has grown this RIDICULOUS Mohawk haircut. Definitely rooting against him now! Crowd loves him though as he’s an Arizona guy. They circle around early and Barberena lands a combo as Luque looks to walk him down. Couple of long punches connect for Luque. Clean right hand connects for the Brazilian. Exchange continues and a big right lands for Luque, but Barberena fires back and they’re trading openly now. HUGE SHOTS land for Luque but Barberena just absorbs them somehow. Both men continue to fire punches but Luque has a pretty clear striking advantage and he continues to land heavy blows. Barberena’s chin is insane. Counter right from him drops Luque and unbelievably he’s in trouble. A tremendous scramble allows him to survive though and somehow he snakes onto the back and SINKS A CHOKE! Barberena is nearly done, but despite giving up both hooks and looking doomed he fights it off. Crowd go apeshit but Luque switches to a D’Arce and now THAT looks sunk too. Barberena again lasts it out though and ends the round with some huge elbows! Wow. That was a tremendous round. 10-10 as Luque was miles ahead early but almost got finished in the end.

Round Two and the crowd are absolutely loving this. Big shots open the round for Barberena and Luque definitely seems a bit rattled. He’s not winging at Barberena like he was early on. HUGE COMBO stuns the Brazilian and he’s in trouble, covering up along the fence. He survives though and starts to back Barberena up again, and they’re just brawling now with both guys landing. This is a hell of a fight. Kick to the body slows Barberena down drastically and Luque’s coming on with his shots now. Barberena fires back though and the trade continues. This might be one of the best brawls I’ve ever seen. No idea how Barberena’s chin is holding up to some of these strikes. Crowd buzz as Barberena showboats a bit before opening up with a combo, but Luque lands right back at him. BOTH of these guys have iron heads. Wild trade continues until Luque drops Barberena with a knee, but he can’t seal the deal before the round ends. 10-9 Luque in another insane round.

Round Three and if they keep up this pace this could be a FOTYC. BRO HUG opens the round and rightfully so. And then they get back to throwing BOMBS at one another with little to no defence. Spinning kick lands cleanly to the head for Luque but again Barberena takes it. Big left hook lands for Barberena. They trade off into a clinch but break quickly and both men land huge right hands. Quick combination for Barberena and he’s keeping the pace a little more than Luque. Both men are still landing pretty cleanly though and the WAR CONTINUES. This is so awesome. Visually Luque looks worse for wear surprisingly enough. Neither guy is defending really though. One minute to go and they just keep pouring it on, and the trade continues to get wilder and wilder before Luque stuns Barberena with some huge shots. Seconds to go and a pair of knees from Luque drop Barberena and he FINISHES HIM OFF! WOW.

That was an incredible finish to an incredible fight, and wow, Luque managed to keep his mad finishing streak going. Basically this was a sloppy brawl as neither man seemed to bother to defend, but it was also a STONE COLD CLASSIC as they just exchanged shot after shot after shot until poor Barberena just couldn’t take any more. Total FOTYC and in a different climate – with less UFC shows – both guys probably would’ve been made into stars from this, and it’s a pity that hasn’t happened as they’re both great.

Featherweight Fight: Kron Gracie vs Alex Caceres

Talk about an exciting debut. Despite their lack of success, with Roger, Renzo and Rolles all failing miserably in recent years, I was super-hyped to see another Gracie debut in the UFC, and Kron actually had some strong MMA experience, with a big win over Tatsuya Kawajiri in Rizin being his best win. Caceres was a pretty tricky first opponent for him, with nearly a decade of UFC experience behind him, but I still took Kron to win by submission, more hope than anything else.

First round begins and Kron looks ridiculously chilled out for a UFC debutant. Long strikes open for Caceres from the outside, but Kron tags him with a counter left hand. Hook kick misses for Caceres and Gracie narrowly misses a big right before clinching and taking the back standing. Caceres looks to fight him off, but Kron’s got one hook in already. SLICK MOVE allows Kron to pull Caceres down into a body triangle, and from there he works for the choke and GETS IT SUNK. Tapout is academic.

Well, that couldn’t have gone any better for Kron really. Demian Maia-esque performance or – dare I say it – something that his father Rickson would’ve pulled off on an overmatched opponent back in the early 90’s. How far this guy can go in the UFC is a question mark but shit, he looked calm on the feet and nobody’s going to beat him on the ground so I’m hopeful. For Gracie fans this might be the guy we’ve been waiting for, finally! This was awesome of course.

Women’s Strawweight Fight: Cynthia Calvillo vs Cortney Casey

After a one-sided win over Polania Botelho in her previous fight this was another slight step up the ladder for Calvillo, who got knocked down a bit in 2017 with a loss to Carla Esparza. Casey was coming off a tight win over Angela Hill in an underrated 2018 fight, but I thought that Calvillo’s striking and takedown game would probably give her a slight advantage.

Round One begins and Calvillo circles on the outside and throws some low kicks as Casey tries to jab at her. Nice right hand lands for Casey but Calvillo fakes a takedown to land a big knee. Exchange continues with Calvillo looking the slightly quicker fighter and landing the better shots. Uppercut counter forces Calvillo onto the retreat but she’s fine. Big combination lands for Casey but Calvillo fires right back. Both women continue to throw strikes before Calvillo throws Casey down off a caught kick, but surprisingly lets her back up. Trade continues and Casey gets tagged by a nice right hand. Looks like Calvillo’s totally found her range now and she lands some beautiful shots. Round ends on the feet. 10-9 Calvillo.

Round Two and Calvillo throws a bunch of kicks early on to keep her distance. She’s being a lot more active than Casey. Kick is caught by Calvillo and she lands some punches but can’t get Casey down. Good right lands for Calvillo and she takes the back standing and gets one hook in. Good job from Casey to escape though and we’re back to the stand-up. Nice left hook lands for Calvillo as they continue the exchange. More of the same follows with Casey basically throwing one shot at a time compared to Calvillo’s combinations. Round ends with more exchanges on the feet. 10-9 Calvillo and Casey needs a finish to win this I think.

Round Three and the announcers are talking about a possible leg injury to Calvillo from Casey’s low kicks. She seems okay to me though as they trade strikes early on again. Crowd are booing for some reason despite the action being pretty decent. More low kicks do land for Casey and you can now see Calvillo struggling to take them. Takedown attempt from Calvillo changes things up but Casey defends pretty excellently and breaks free. Another hard low kick from Casey leads to a takedown attempt from Calvillo but again Casey stuffs it. Calvillo’s moving really badly now. More boos follow as evidently this crowd got spoiled by Luque vs. Barberena. Both women continue to land some good strikes and with a minute to go they’re openly trading now. Casey appears to be landing the harder shots at this point but it might be too late for her. Round ends on the feet with another wild trade. 10-9 Casey but I’d call this 29-28 Calvillo overall.

Official scores are 29-28, 29-28 and 30-27 for Cynthia Calvillo. Right call I’d say although the crowd disagree and roundly boo, probably due to Casey being an Arizona native. Really good fight overall as they left it all in the Octagon and while I feel like Calvillo could’ve had an easier route to victory if she’d gone for more takedowns, Casey did fight off the ones she tried which showed a lot of improvement for her, and she did a lot of damage to the leg too. Fun stuff even if it wasn’t as good as Luque vs. Barberena!

Lightweight Fight: Paul Felder vs James Vick

Surprising choice for a co-main event here but I guess Felder is the UFC’s boy these days due to his commentary work and hey, he’s a cool guy who takes on all comers so I don’t mind. Ignoring his random Welterweight fight with Mike Perry this was maybe his toughest fight to date as Vick had only lost one fight – to Justin Gaethje – since 2016 and was super-dangerous due to his crazy reach. Due to Vick’s questionable chin though I was taking Felder in a mild upset.

First round begins and the crowd are way in favour of Felder. They circle and exchange some feeler strikes before Felder clocks Vick with a big overhand right. Vick takes it well but eats a leg kick soon after. Exchange continues and Felder tags Vick with punches again, having no problem getting past the reach. Vick fires back with a stiff one-two though. Spinning back elbow glances for Felder. Both men land a bunch of low kicks, and Felder’s really using them to chop Vick down. Clinch from Felder with a minute to go and he shoves Vick back into the fence. They jockey for position and break off, and another spinning attack hurts Vick badly! He wobbles all over the place and has to clinch to stop Felder following up, and the round ends just after. 10-9 Felder.

Second round and Felder misses with the spinning backfist right away. He backs Vick up and throws some more kicks as well as the overhand right, but Vick glances with a flying knee. Felder tries a takedown and almost gets caught in a guillotine, but he gets free and they wind up clinched instead. Crowd are booing AGAIN now which is ludicrous. This crowd sucks. They trade knees and jockey for a potential takedown, before Vick breaks with a right hand. Big combo connects for Vick but Felder takes it well and hurts him with a low kick. Overhand right lands for Felder again but Vick shakes it off. Beautiful combo from Vick knocks Felder backwards but he walks into a spinning elbow again. Clinch follows but Vick can’t get Felder down and they break off. Spin kick glances for Vick. Flying knee connects for him too. Looks like he’s found his range in this round as he dodges a big combo too. Brutal low kick from Felder. Vick’s clearly limping now. Couple more low kicks land for Felder and the round ends with a left hand missing for him. 10-9 Vick by a hair.

Third round and Felder works to back Vick up again with the low kick. Nice spinning back kick lands cleanly to the body for Felder. Jumping knee leads to a big combo from Vick but he eats a nasty left on the counter and they clinch up. Elbow breaks for Felder and he dodges a flurry. Low kick has Vick limping horribly and he might be in trouble. He does well to keep going though and lands a Cerrone-like step-in knee. Low kick lands for Felder again though and he dodges a long left. Combination follows for the Irish Dragon. Big shots miss for Vick. Leg kick leads to a left hand and Vick drops for a split second but pops right back up. Beautiful shot from Felder. Vick manages to recover well and he lands a hard right in a trade, but Felder clinches up again. Just over a minute left and they break, with both men throwing big shots that miss. Spinning back elbow glances for Felder as Vick leaps towards him. Clinch follows and things slow down a bit, but they break with seconds to go and exchange before the end. 10-9 Felder, 29-28 overall for Felder.

Judges go 29-28, 30-27 and 30-27 for Paul Felder, giving him a pretty huge win. He might be the most underrated guy out there at 155lbs actually when you consider his only loss there in his last 7 fights was to the equally underrated Francisco Trinaldo. This could be the year he breaks into the elite though based on this one, as he used some excellent kicks and timing to largely pick a tricky opponent apart, and generally put his game together better than we’d seen before. Fight was fun too despite the odd slow moment.

Heavyweight Fight: Francis Ngannou vs Cain Velasquez

Huge fight at Heavyweight right here then, with the former champ Cain returning after almost 3 years banged up with injuries to take on perhaps the most dangerous man in the division. Word was that the winner could be in line for a title shot too which made it even more fascinating. In his prime I’d have taken Cain here in a heartbeat – basically he was a better version of the Stipe Miocic who dismantled Ngannou – but due to all the wear and tear I couldn’t pick him in good conscience and so I went with Ngannou via knockout.

MASSIVE crowd reaction for Cain upon his entrance, unsurprising given he’s an Arizona guy but man, he could honestly have been such a huge star for the UFC had he been able to stay healthy in his prime. Ngannou meanwhile is pretty hated.

Fight begins and Cain wastes no time in charging forward, landing a body kick before missing a head kick. Ngannou looks for a combo and Cain closes the distance…but eats something on the way and goes down HARD. Looks like he’s hurt badly and some punches from Ngannou seal the deal. Jesus. That went too fast to even tell exactly what happened. Talk about an anticlimax.

Replay shows exactly what happened – in just 26 seconds. Basically Velasquez lunged in for a takedown, Ngannou stuffed it and as Cain leaned in again Ngannou caught him cleanly with a right uppercut that caused his knee to buckle, setting up the finish. Unbelievable stuff as the finish was clearly caused by the punch rather than an injury, as the announcers first thought.

So yeah, big win for Ngannou – arguably the biggest of his career to this point in fact given the reputation of Velasquez – but for Cain I think this is probably the end as I just don’t think his body can hold up any more and it’s such a pity because the guy could genuinely have overtaken Fedor Emelianenko as the best Heavyweight ever had he stayed healthy. As it is though I’d still class Fedor as #1 of all time. As for Ngannou, the questions about his cardio and wrestling still remain but when he’s fighting like this it’s hard to care really! Not the epic main event I was hoping for but it was memorable nonetheless.

-Show ends with Ngannou celebrating and Cain leaving the Octagon in disappointment.

Final Thoughts….

Pretty great debut for the UFC on ESPN then; we got a total FOTYC in the form of Luque vs. Barberena and everything else was fun to watch too, even the somewhat slower fights between Jury and Fili, Casey and Calvillo and Vick and Felder. Throw in the slick finish for Kron Gracie and even an anticlimactic main event couldn’t bring this one down. Easy thumbs up overall.

Best Fight: Luque vs. Barberena
Worst Fight: Fili vs. Jury

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman: